In recent years, school districts have attempted to put more resources and attention toward helping students overcome past traumatic experiences. Now, three specialists with backgrounds in counseling, psychology and social work are helping train Central Oregon educators on the best strategies to assist those students.

For the next three years, three “care coaches” will continuously meet with local school administrators, teachers and classified staff to help shift Central Oregon’s school culture with an eye toward helping students who struggle with trauma.

The three coaches said negative childhood experiences can make students more susceptible to health risks such as addiction later in life. Their goal is to help “rewire” those students’ brains through strong staff-student relationships, nonpunitive discipline measures and other methods of ensuring a safe learning environment.

“If we implement these strategies, we can stop that negative trajectory and help those kids end up having positive, healthy, thriving lives,” said Amy Yillik, one of the three coaches.

The coaches — Yillik, 50, Erin Taylor, 41, and Amber McGill, 40 — were hired by the High Desert Education Service District in July with the help of a $1.5 million grant. That grant, from health- and education-focused nonprofits Central Oregon Health Council and Better Together, pays for the trio’s salaries for three years, professional development sessions for local educators and substitutes for staff who attend the coaches’ sessions.

Since July, the coaches have already met with staff from at least one school in each of Central Oregon’s six school districts.

One aspect that the coaches’ training sessions emphasize is building strong relationships with students. Yillik said children with difficult upbringings benefit from having connections with adults who care about them.

But the coaches help educators find the exact balance, so teachers don’t get too involved in a student’s personal life. McGill said she doesn’t expect educators to become therapists or friends with students.

“Our job is to say, ‘Within your role, here’s some things you can do in the classroom, at recess,’” McGill said. “We’re not saying, ‘Now you’re responsible for the well-being of this child; you should take them into your home and contact them outside of school.’”

The coaches also promote restorative, rather than punitive, discipline in classrooms. Yillik said that traditionally, schools would simply remove children from school or the classroom if they acted out. But now, they’re encouraging teachers and staff to focus more on fixing broken relationships and having the students find solutions to their actions.

“Are we really teaching students new skills so they can make different choices, or are we pushing them out and expecting them to be different?” said McGill.

The coaches said they hope to teach educators how traumatic experiences can shape kids’ behavior and then help students build resilience and move past their trauma.

“Our task is to help teachers understand the why behind students’ behavior, and helping them realize they’re not just bad kids,” Yillik said.

They’re also working with educators on how their body language can say more than their words, and how to take care of themselves after working with trauma-impacted students.

All three coaches have many years of experience working with children. McGill, a licensed clinical social worker, has helped students in both Chicago and Portland. Yillik, who has a doctorate in counseling education, has been a school counselor in Western Washington schools and most recently at Bend High School. Taylor served as a special education teacher and school psychologist in Texas, and in the Redmond School District as a behavior specialist.

While in Redmond, Taylor said she noticed that staff didn’t know how to handle students who acted out in class due to traumatic experiences in their past.

“The system around that student needed to shift,” she said. “Staff were saying, ‘It’s not that we don’t want to (help), we just don’t know how.’”

Katie Condit, executive director of Better Together, said she was thrilled that the region’s health and education sectors were teaming up to help students who’ve experienced trauma. She added that having the three coaches continuously work with educators is more effective than one-off sessions.

“What we know from the research is that ongoing (training) in a skill or subject matter has a significantly higher success rate of being implemented in the classroom,” Condit said. “These ongoing coach roles were really important to add on top of introduction trainings to trauma-informed care.”

Condit said local educators have been happy with the training sessions so far.

“They came in ready to hit the ground working,” she said. “It’s going according to plan.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854,